Recently I invested in one of these new fangled E-cigarette things and persevered for a bit, except I found it gave me a blinding headache the following morning. Well I think it was that - clearly nothing to do with the vat of red wine I drank during the battery-powered fake fag experiment.
For years though, smoking and pubs were synonymous in my life. Particularly in the late teens early twenties phase: oh, for the Heineken ashtray in the centre of the lacquered wood table, surrounded on three sides by plush covered banquettes with about twelve of us crammed around, drinking pints of pre-CAMRA age beer! At risk of feeding more snappy one liners into Al Murray's repertoire, back then some of the girls had a penchant for adding a glace cherry on a cocktail stick to their halves of lager which were, without exception, served in a 'ladies glass.' This was a sort of oversized wine goblet which has all but disappeared from the British Licensed Trade. Vanished, along with it, is the barman's question "Is the half for a man or a lady?" (Men got a kind of miniature dimpled mug or, in some parts of the south west, a beaker-type affair with a little ridge around it known as a 'sleever.')
But what, I hear you cry, does this have to do with music? Well, sit back and I will elaborate.
The particular 'local' to which I refer was a town centre pub, in close proximity to the local theatre. It was also, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a dive. In other words, pretty rough. Just one bar stretched virtually the whole length of the building, and there was a kind of un-walled divide half way down. The 'top end' was the haunt of local toughies and serious drinkers; below the mid-point step students, meeker locals and un-suspecting tourists were generally allowed.
Thespians dropping in post-show for a nightcap were frequent: the sight of Hinge & Bracket propping up the bar still in their drag-act grease paint was a sight to behold, incongruous amongst the oil rig workers and hod carriers slaking their thirst.
All this being said, there was a generally relaxed atmosphere of tolerance and no nonsense was suffered by the ex-Copper landlord and his formidable wife. One busy evening a rather well-known actor of stage and screen was propositioned by a local hard-working girl. The freshly flock wallpapered walls resonated with his booming stage-voice reply: "No thank you, I feel like a young man tonight." And he wasn't replying to a question about his health.
Sundays were generally quiet nights, and it was on one such evening - at a time of year when shadows were lengthening and jackets were being worn again - that this incident occurred.
A few of us filtered in through the side door, and all clocked the rather lonely-looking figure sitting nursing a pint between the top and bottom ends of the pub. Long hair, unkempt beard, floor-length overcoat and a Tom Baker (as 'Doctor Who') scarf wound loosely around his neck and shoulders. He seemed far away in thought, lighting cigarettes and staring into the middle distance.
We all knew who it was. Wearing exactly the same clothes, he had appeared on the cover of a recent issue of New Musical Express. I'd also seen him a couple of days earlier standing at the Taxi rank: indeed, dear reader, this was the slightly reclusive and enigmatic figure of Mike Oldfield. He lived then in a large old stone house in the Cotswolds, spending his days composing and recording, recording and composing, composing and recording etc. His output hadn't been particular prolific since the monumental success of 'Tubular Bells' some five or six years earlier…so perhaps he'd popped into our local looking for inspiration?
There were mirrors behind the bar and the odd moonlight shadow on the pavement outside - but the chances of him drawing upon these references for future work are unlikely, given what was to follow.
Almost un-seen, Mr Oldfield slipped out into the night. As quietly as he came into our lives, he'd gone. Phil the barman, armed with his little galvanised waste bucket and paintbrush, emerged from behind the bar to fuss around emptying the celebrity ashtray and collect the empties from the table. Suddenly, as triumphant as an olympic torch bearer, he sent a flame shooting towards the nicotine-stained ceiling. "Woo-hoo! Mike Oldfield has left his lighter behind!!"
Now this really was cause for celebration. While several of the assembled party hummed and whistled the 'Theme from the Exorcist' part of 'Tubular Bells', another flicked the lights on and off in a spooky manner, while the rest of us formed a circle and simultaneously lit our fags from the multi-talented musician's splendidly fuelled-up Zippo. What a spectacle this was!
Then a diminutive voice said "Excuse me, did I leave my lighter in here?"
Embarrassing beyond belief. Someone tried to steer the singing away from 'Tubular Bells' and into something like 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life,' but failed miserably. Two or three culprits pretended they didn't smoke by hiding their fags behind their backs, others (self included) just stared at the floor, wanting it to open up and suck us down as far as possible. Phil, braaaaaaave Phil, was as cool he had ever been (and never was again) and just said "Here you go!" before handing the lighter over as if nothing had happened. The somewhat unconvincing implication in Phil's tone was that Mike Oldfield had imagined the whole incident. Rather like the episode of Father Ted when Bishop Brennan wakes up to find his bedroom infested with rabbits.
Nobody had seen Mike Oldfield re-enter the pub: just how long he'd been standing there watching a bunch of youths in high spirits prance about we will never know. But it could be the reason that 'Tubular Bells 2' was thirty years in the making. The jury is still out on whether or not my entourage did the world a favour there.